By Eesha Pendharkar
BU News Service
“I’m a world-traveling, soccer-playing journalist, but the only thing people remember about me is that I have a roomful of dolls.”
Bill McFarland sits at the head of the conference table at the daily 9 a.m. meeting, making notes with his Uniball pen that only he can decipher. He’s dressed in an impeccable three-piece suit, complete with a pocket square, the very image of efficient authority. With an easygoing demeanor, he leans back in his chair, swiveling occasionally. His co-workers often pause to look at him as they talk, seeking his approval to continue their pitch. He doesn’t comment often and when he does, there are unanimous nods all around the table.
When the meeting is over, he often engages reporters in small talk. “How are you doing? How are the kids?” He segues into work matters effortlessly, listening to ideas and making decisions as he navigates the open-floor office of New England Cable News.
“My main function is to guide our editorial direction,” said McFarland. He was brought in as the Managing Editor for NBC Boston, the new NBC-owned affiliate that would join the other NECN and Telemundo Boston to become the nation’s first triopoly. I make sure we have a well-rounded day, not just crime stories or just stories about Hatchimals.”
His knowledge of the way broadcast journalism works is extensive and up-to-date. “The 4 p.m. show is the story of the day. What’s happening now? The 5 p.m show features more enterprising content. What’s happening next?” he said.
When he talks to students, he can answer every question about the future of TV news and the direction it will follow with absolute certainty, all interspersed with jokes and comments to make students feel more involved, which leaves his audience clamoring to keep the conversation he started in class going.
“I think he’s a very approachable person. He listens and makes everyone think they matter,” said McFarland’s co-worker Vanessa Botleho, who has worked with him for 12 years. “He has a unique perspective from his travel and his background that he brings to the table.”
Since McFarland is the personification of his job, you would not guess that he plays in a soccer league, is an avid Mego doll collector and was homeless for a few years.
“I had moved 13 times by the time I was 15.” Why? Poverty. “It was really because my mom wanted us to be in good schools but we couldn’t afford it. So we would live in a suburb and they would up the rent,” McFarland recalled. “We would move to the city, save and move back to the suburbs.”
He left home when he was 15 to be able to attend a high school “where college was an assumption,” and spent the next three years living in sample units used by realtors that he discovered were empty and furnished.
McFarland’s account of high school is devoid of reckless parties and drinking. Every day, he had to come up with ways to sustain himself as a “homeless-by-choice” teenager. “There was a department store in Philly, the top floor was an employee-only cafeteria which sold meals for $2.50. I would put on a tie and because of the way I looked, no one would question me.”
He was an expert at getting what he wanted by finding ways to work around the traditional route since he was 15. “If people were going to make assumptions about me because I was white, I was going to let them make those assumptions.”
“Your family’s paid for my college to some extent,” McFarland quipped. Since he left home when he was 15, his $4000 income was individually evaluated, qualifying him for financial aid. “I got financial aid for being poor, for being a good student, and a soccer player.”
“When I switched to Temple, I went up to the coach and said I want to play. I was a goalie. Goalies are rare and I had played for a reputed high school. Besides, I knew Temple’s goalie wasn’t very good because I had done research before applying,” he said. When asked if he plans everything this elaborately, he denies the credit. “These were not decisions I thought about long and hard,” he admits. He just knew what he wanted and figured out ways to get it.
As a political science major in college, McFarland initially had a hard time as he was skeptical of freshmen who would skip classes and party frequently. “I never saw a consumer product where consumer screamed to be ripped off more than college,” he said.
He did adjust to college eventually, doing it in his own unique way of finding loopholes in the rules to play the game. “I realized that Laundromat tokens were the same size as subway tokens. So instead of paying $1.50, I payed 25 cents,” he said.
His entry into journalism was through an unpaid internship at ABC. “I worked at ABC from 9 to 3. I went home, put on my Kinko’s shirt, and worked 4-12 am there, in addition to a third weekend job,” he said.
When asked why he was drawn to news and TV, he admitted, “I used to love saying, I’m Bill McFarland from ABC news. And I’m a pop culture guy, I felt like TV mattered.” At his internship, he always knew that he had to be well prepared with story suggestions, and he managed to score a field producer position with ABC without knowing what the position was called.
McFarland started his career at the assignment desk. “When I took my first job, I didn’t know what an assignment editor was, I was just like, you gonna pay me? then I went to my friend and said, ‘I’m rich’,” he said.
He said it wasn’t easy, and he was constantly scared. “For a long time I thought someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and ask me, did you have fun? Now its time to go back to where you belong. In West Philly, folding shirts at a retail outlet.”
Today, though, having traveled more than 30 countries, he puts his childhood into perspective.
“I’m sure a lot of people on the streets of Delhi would have loved to be as poor as I was,” he said, describing the shocking poverty he saw on his trip to India.
Practicality is evident in every aspect of McFarland’s life, but he’s not all work and no play, as is evident when he pulls up a photo of a room full of wall-to-wall shelves filled with superhero action figures. “Nostalgia” he answers when asked why a serious journalist would be passionate about collecting superhero dolls. “Also because I am a nerd.”
His present-day life was built through a series of challenges all of which he remembers proudly and has learned from. McFarland’s wife Leah thinks his intelligence and his experiences are what make her husband successful. “He sees things how they are, but also how they could be – and how to make that a new reality,” she said.
McFarland is a consummate journalist. He tells his own story with the right hooks; including the important information, a little fluff and a little room for contemplation.